Laser treatments are used to slow and stop the progression of diabetic retinopathy. These procedures aren’t painful, but they do require numbing drops beforehand and mean enduring many bright flashes of light.
A laser beam focused into your eye to treat diabetes-related retinopathy can seem scary. But in reality, the anticipation is often worse than the procedure itself.
People with diabetes who receive laser treatment for retinopathy typically see a series of flashes of light. Thanks to numbing drops, you often only experience a slight sting or feel uncomfortable for brief moments as the laser is doing its work.
Those who’ve had many laser treatments tell Healthline that their personal experience is that modern laser therapy is often not painful and isn’t as scary as you might think.
This article will provide more detail about the clinical aside of laser therapy and what you can expect before, during, and after the procedure. We’ll also offer some perspective on cost, which can vary quite a bit based on insurance and may impact how often you might choose to have laser treatment.
Diabetic retinopathy is a common complication of diabetes that can affect anyone with the disease. In fact, more than
While there’s no cure for diabetic retinopathy, many treatments can slow the spread and even stop the progression of the disease.
There are two types of laser therapy for retinopathy:
- Photocoagulation laser therapy:
This typeof laser treatment can help prevent vision loss, especially if it’s performed early, before severe retina damage is done. The laser treatment will stop new blood vessels from growing in your eye. The heat from the laser will cause scarring, limiting the growth of new blood vessels and stopping inflammation. This can help your eye heal and absorb extra fluid. You may require more than one session to get the best results.
- Scatter (pan-retinal) photocoagulation surgery:
This typeof laser treatment also limits the growth of new blood vessels in the eye. This is usually used in more advanced stages of retinopathy related to diabetes.
Both of these treatments can be extremely effective, but they don’t work for all people.
There are some things you’ll need to know to better prepare for your treatment. It’s best if you don’t drive to your appointment, as your vision will typically be blurry afterward and you’ll need to a ride home.
Drink plenty of water in the days leading up to your treatment so you’re not dehydrated, and plan to not work for a few days afterward since your vision will be impaired.
Before your appointment
A doctor will first check your eyes and your eye pressure, to make sure you’re ready for treatment. You may have only one eye lasered at a time or sometimes both, depending.
Typically, an ophthalmologist will perform this procedure in an outpatient setting. They’ll begin by giving you eye-numbing drops, so you don’t feel any pain when the laser is applied to your retina. Other eyedrops will help widen your pupils during the procedure.
Your eye specialist may allow you to keep your own eyelid open during procedure. If that’s not possible, they may place a magnifying lens over your eye to help keep your eyelid open as well as help focus the laser beam on your retina.
The laser treatment involves focusing a strong beam of light onto your retina in small, scattered spots. The number of spots will vary depending on the severity of retinopathy you have. You shouldn’t feel any pain during this. You may feel a slight pricking sensation where nerves are under the eye. If you feel extreme pain, let your doctor know as soon as possible.
The procedure is quick and typically only takes between 20 and 40 minutes.
Your eyes will adjust to the brightness during the session, but your vision may be altered immediately afterward. You should bring sunglasses to wear home to protect your eyes after the treatment.
Typically, your vision will return to normal within 1 day of the treatment. You’ll then be able to resume normal activities, such as school, work, and even driving. Ask your doctor about exercise after the treatment.
Sometimes your eyesight can take longer to return to normal. If you’ve had a more excessive laser treatment, your eyes may ache. Taking an over-the-counter pain reliever, such as aspirin or ibuprofen, can help remedy the pain. You may be given an eye patch and eye drops to help with healing as well.
If you’ve had many laser treatments in the past, you may feel more discomfort during treatment. Taking over-the-counter pain relievers before and after an appointment can help alleviate this.
Personal experience on diabetic retinopathy laser treatment
Healthline editor Mike Hoskins knows firsthand how laser treatment works for diabetes-related retinopathy.
From personal experience, as someone with type 1 diabetes since childhood who’s had 18 laser treatments and several eye injections for diabetes retinopathy since 2019, he shares that modern laser therapy is often not painful or as scary as it might seem.
After the first procedure, he found that the laser therapy wasn’t painful. The most challenging part was trying to keep your eyes open, while looking directly into very bright flashes of light. In just those initial laser treatments, he had 30–45 flashes of light, much like rapid back-to-back camera flashes, and a slight sense of light pressure into the eye itself.
Those lasers took on average about 25 minutes, total. The entirety of the eye specialist visit was spent sitting in wait for the numbing and dilation drops to take full effect.
You can read more here about Hoskins’ personal experience with diabetic retinopathy treatments.
For the first few days after treatment, you may experience the following side effects:
- blurry vision
- decreased vision
- eye irritation
- eye ache
- watery eyes
- dilated pupils
- seeing spots
If you’re experiencing severe pain or your vision is worsening after the treatment, call your doctor right away.
Laser treatments are extremely effective at helping to slow and stop the progression of later-stage retinopathy, but these treatments are usually not complete after one session.
Depending on the severity of your retinopathy, you may require several laser sessions. Typically, people have between 1 and 3 sessions. Talk with a doctor if you have questions or concerns and about the extent of treatment you can expect.
The cost of laser treatment will depend on your health insurance coverage and deductible. But, if you have diabetes, this type of eye treatment is at least typically covered by most health insurance plans, including Medicare and Medicaid.
Depending on your out-of-pocket maximum, a series of these treatments can cost anywhere from several hundred to several thousand dollars. Check with your health insurance plan on coverage and cost-sharing before scheduling your treatment.
Depending on the stage and severity of the retinopathy, your doctor may recommend laser treatments to slow and stop the progression of the condition.
These procedures are noninvasive and shouldn’t cause much discomfort or pain. They’re typically performed in an outpatient setting, and you’re awake for the procedure. It’s relatively quick, between 20 and 40 minutes per session.
During a session, brief pulses of laser energy are applied to your retina to create scarring and prevent the growth of new blood vessels. This can also ease inflammation.
Sometimes laser treatments are combined with steroid shots or other medications. Recovery time can take several days to a week, and the treatments are very successful at slowing and sometimes stopping the progression of this complication. Talk with a doctor if you have diabetic retinopathy and are curious about laser treatment options.